Parents are increasingly aware of the great advantages to be found in traditional, learning-based toys.
This powerful intuition is backed by the findings of educational researchers and government advisors. The UK government has published its own set of standards on children’s learning and development from birth to five years, based on the most up-to-date research, creating a set of principles known as the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).
The guidelines stress the vital importance of play as a form of emotional and mental development – pointing out that, through play, children learn to make sense of the world, gather information, communicate with others, express themselves and form relationships with other people.
From the first year of their lives, children seek stimulation and reach out to the world as their brains and bodies develop. Even before birth, children absorb a great deal of information – and this process is accelerated when they enter the world. There are virtually no experiences for a child in its first few years of life that can not be described as “educational”, as they see, hear, smell and touch things for the very first time. Today’s parent seeks to enhance this experience by creating a positive and enjoyable play environment that encourages the growth of basic motor skills, movement and hand to eye coordination.
The best toys for children in the very early stages of development are therefore those that not only make all of this possible, but make the process as fun and exciting as possible. Toys such as rattles, building blocks, push-along vehicles, activity centres and baby walkers will have youngsters constantly striving to explore the world and find out more about it. They will also gain the confidence and satisfaction that comes from discovering that they can interact with and shape their environment. Any new parent will tell you that their child loves to grab hold of anything to hand and test all aspects of its physicality using all their senses – through touching, shaking, smelling and even tasting it.
As babies become toddlers, this desire to interact gathers pace. Toddlers love to find new ways of getting about the place and they have a fascination with building things – and of course the fun of knocking them over afterwards. Around this stage of development, children also discover the joy of dressing up and role play, and as they begin to meet and interact with other children, games of imagination become more and more common. It is a thrill for any parent to see their children acting out scenes from the world around them, taking on the roles of doctors, nurses, firemen, farmers – or even pirates, princesses and knights in shining armour – through the use of costumes, action figures and play sets.
Young children soon find themselves fascinated by problem-solving, in the form of puzzles, building toys such as Lego and arts and crafts. Youngsters love making pictures, sculptures and models – and love to proudly show their creations off as well. Homes soon become hives of activity, with children surrounded by pens, paints, beads, glue and glitter.
Once children start school, play becomes more social and physical in nature and, once again, the most educational toys take this into account. Outdoor play is more frequent, and there are few children between the ages of six and ten who do not want their own bicycle. Climbing frames and fun sporting equipment remain a firm favourite among parents and children alike, allowing youngsters to develop new physical skills, play with friends and develop sporting strategies and tactics. For mental development, science and chemistry sets can grip the imagination – and provided a firm grounding for later academic achievement.
Of course, all toy sellers want the customer to think that their products are not only fun but educational too. Powerful advertising campaigns are brought into play to repeatedly assert this as a fact. However, too many high-tech toys are merely entertainment devices, which distract a child rather than stimulating them. Humans are “wired” to pay attention to sudden noises, movements and changes in the environment. Modern toys make use of this tendency with a dizzying array of bright lights, beeps and other sounds – whilst doing little to actually develop a child’s capacity.
Traditional toys, including all of those mentioned above, avoid this pitfall by ensuring that children, far from being distracted or stupefied, are involved in the play experience at every level. The more physical forms of play give the child the sort of exercise that a games console or hand-held device simply cannot. And that is why more and more parents are rediscovering the value of the sort of toys they fondly remember from their own childhoods.